Let's begin by asking, what is Samhain?
Samhain (saah-ween) is the original name of the Celtic pagan ritual which in Northern America we now call Halloween. It has pre-Christian roots (meaning it began before Christ was born).
This "ritual" was held at the end of harvest, just before the beginning of winter. This was halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. Why?
This time marked a transition in seasons–a time when the cattle were brought back from their summer pasture. Those needed for the winter were slaughtered, and those needed for procreation were kept alive.
You need to imagine that at this time, there was no Walmart to drive to and get food/meat–and probably no money to buy it if you could find it. The people were smart enough to know that there was something bigger than them that controlled the seasons and whether they would make it through the winter. But remember, they weren’t Jewish–didn’t know the name of Yahweh, and Christ had not been born on this earth yet. So where did they turn?
This transitional season also marked what they believed was the bridge to the World of the Dead. So…it seemed natural to them to link this parallel world with the anxiety they had during that season, right? How did that go?
Samhain was observed in part by lighting special bonfires. These bonfires were said to have protective and cleansing powers. During the ritual bonfire, it was believed that the fire brought a liminal time for the Pagan gods and nature spirits (think elves and fairies). A liminal time is a time of disorientation enabling spirits/fairies to enter our world easily.
Observance also therefore meant that food and water were left for these “souls of the dead” that came to visit. They would actually set out places and plates at their feasts for the dead.
Guising was a part of the festival as well. I’m not overly familiar with it. I know that it was a tradition to dress in a disguise and go door-to-door and special recited verses were exchanged for food.
All of this celebration may have been fun, but what it came down to was the desire to incur divine favor to “the souls of the dead” out of fear. They believed they needed to please the dead in order for the people and their livestock to survive the winter. That’s it.
Christ came and died for our sins.
Then, in the 9th century the Roman Catholic Church moved its All Saints’ Day to November 1st, and it’s All Souls’ Day (to remember the martyrs) to November 2nd. Thus October 31 became All Hallow’s (Saints’) Eve. There’s a ton of information out there on this so I’ll leave that up to you to research the transition.
Here’s an important point to remember: Celtic neopagans and Wiccans still observe Samhain.
So while a good chunk of Americans are still out there having fun on Halloween–dressing up like goblins, the dead, fairies, elves, getting drunk, going door to door reciting a special verse in exchange for treats–there are those out there celebrating right alongside...willingly inviting evil to come party among them.